From the Night Factory
48. And I
Thought of the Bridges
The small town of
Morrisville, Pennsylvania is braced to Trenton, New
Jersey by four bridges across the Delaware River. This
part of the river is known as the Falls of Delaware.
Here the river is between 900 and 1,000 feet across and
for a stretch of about two miles it is shallow and
filled with rocks. It was a barrier to the ships of the
Dutch West India Company. They established a trading
post on the Pennsylvania side in 1624, what would become
Morrisville. This shallow portion of the river was a
barrier to John Fitch, inventor of the steamboat, who,
steaming up from Philadelphia, could bring his craft no
further in 1790. The water flows rapidly between
Morrisville and Trenton. It is the fall line, where the
Piedmont Plateau meets the Coastal Plain and the river
drops eight feet. It made for a good place to build
water-powered mills. It is as far as the Atlantic tide
brings seawater. It is a good place to build bridges.
Trenton-Morrisville Toll Bridge
The second bridge is a few hundred feet away, green girders attached to piers of granite-faced masonry. It is the ugliest of the four bridges. Utilitarian, the concrete deck plopped into place, this is the Trenton–Morrisville Toll Bridge. It is forever visibly corroding and deteriorating, and not in the charming way of Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi. This unadorned bridge represents the pragmatic plainness of the Eisenhower era in which it was built, forgettable relicts of a Philistine age best remembered in black & white. It is the only toll bridge of the four. When I began commuting across this bridge, there was a dime toll each way. The toll is now one-way, westbound into Pennsylvania, and if you don’t have an E-Z Pass, it is a dollar. For that reason, plenty of people take the next bridge up when traveling west.
Lower Trenton Toll Supported
Keogh in foreground)
That next bridge, another
few hundred feet further upriver, was the Lower Trenton
Toll Supported Bridge, built in 1806, the first bridge
built across the Delaware River. Using a technology
favored for covered bridges, the Burr arch truss,
Theodore Burr designed this unique bridge of laminated
wood arches from which were suspended chain link to hold
the deck. And it was covered! The bridge was acquired in
1834 by the railroad to complete an uninterrupted train
line from Philadelphia to New York, but because the
bridge was made of wood, at that point in the journey
the rail cars had to be hauled across by horses.
Reinforced a year later, locomotives could share the
bridge with horse-drawn wagons.
Now we arrive at my
favorite bridge, the last of the four uniting
Morrisville with Trenton. It is several thousand feet
farther upriver. This is the Calhoun Street Bridge, a
Pratt pin-connected truss bridge, a delicate tracery
painted verdigris-like green. So fine are the struts,
chords, and bracing you can forget to see the bridge and
admire the sky, the rocks in the river, the capital city
downriver with the gold leaf cupola of the statehouse,
or the thickly green trees upriver crowding the
riverbanks. Crossing on motorcycle, the river is visible
through deck’s grating beneath your feet. Then, if you
notice the bridge itself, it invites study. The eyes
will find doily-like accoutrements in corners,
decorative plaquettes in the webbing, and finials atop
the ends of the truss.
Instead of flat, fat, cast iron columns, the truss is constructed with the famous Phoenix column, four sections joined to form a cylinder, riveted along a lip that runs the length of the seams.
What is most unfortunate is
the disruption to the bridge’s aesthetics by the
addition of steel uprights to the inclined end posts
when approaching from the Morrisville side. This later
addition doesn’t seem to have any structural purpose and
is only there to hold a battery of signs declaring
clearance, weight limits, speed limits, and not to ride
your bike or a horse across. Because of it, you are
likely to fail to observe the plaque that crowns the
entry to the bridge. It reads, “THE PHOENIX BRIDGE CO.
The Phoenix Bridge Company
was organized in 1864 as a division of the Phoenix Iron
Works, which was founded in 1790. The Phoenix Bridge
Company, which is now defunct, built almost 1,400
bridges and as far away as China. This particularly fine
example connecting Morrisville to Trenton was built in
1884. It was not the first bridge at this location.
Selected Suburban Soliloquies, the best of Mr Bentzman's earlier series of Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.